More than four years of family conflict over Aretha Franklin’s estate ended Tuesday when a Michigan jury decided what her family couldn’t — which of two hand-scratched wills represented the famous singer’s true wishes about how to divide her estate.
After a two-day trial in probate court in Pontiac, Mich., a jury decided after less than an hour of deliberation that a four-page document written by Franklin in 2014 — and discovered under a couch cushion at her home, months after Franklin’s death in 2018 — should to serve as her will. The jury rejected a longer and more detailed document from 2010.
The verdict resolved more than four years of uncertainty that caused a rift in Franklin’s family, and it sets in motion a plan for how income and assets from her estate should be divided.
After the singer died, at the age of 76, her family believed that she had no will. Under Michigan law, her assets would have been divided equally among her four sons: Kecalf, Edward and Clarence Franklin, and Ted White Jr. The sons unanimously chose a cousin as the personal representative of the estate, a position similar to that of an executor.
But months later, in May 2019, the two handwritten documents were found at Franklin’s home in suburban Detroit – one in a locked cabinet, the other in a spiral notebook on the sofa – which immediately divided the singer’s children. It also left open questions about how music royalties and other income from the estate — as well as cherished items such as Franklin’s furs, jewelry and musical instruments — would be distributed.
Neither document was prepared by a lawyer, and neither lists witnesses, although the first one was notarized. Both contained detailed lists of assets, along with what appeared to be extraneous information, such as disparaging comments about some of the men in Franklin’s life.
The two wills also divided Franklin’s assets in other ways. The earlier specified weekly and monthly allowances to each of Franklin’s four sons. It also stipulated that Kecalf and Eduardo “must take commercial classes and receive a certificate or diploma” to collect from the estate.
In the later will, three of Franklin’s sons—all but Clarence—would receive equal shares of their mother’s music royalties, but Kecalf and his children would receive more of Franklin’s personal property. According to the document, Kecalf would receive the main home of his mother in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. – valued at $1.1 million at the time of her death – as well as the singer’s cars. According to an accounting submitted to court in March, Franklin owned a Mercedes-Benz, two Cadillacs and a Thunderbird convertible.
Kecalf and Eduardo preferred the 2014 document, saying it represented her final wishes and revoked the earlier one. White argued for the 2010 will, which was longer and more detailed, with Ms Franklin’s signature on every page.
According to Craig A. Smith, a lawyer for Edward Franklin, the sons have all agreed to support Clarence Franklin, the singer’s first child, who according to court documents has been diagnosed with mental illness, and has a court guardian.
As the two sides of the family fought, the case grew antagonistic. Kecalf accused Sabrina Owens, the cousin initially chosen to run the estate, of mismanagement. She later resigned from the position, citing the “rift” that had developed in the family.
The coldness between Kecalf, Edward and Ted White Jr. was palpable in the small probate courtroom in wealthy Oakland County, Mich. No handshakes, no small talk and no eye contact were shared between the trio of grown men forced to sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a bench behind their respective lawyers.
White held his wife’s hand throughout the trial. He said the brothers are tough on each other in court but still talk otherwise.
“We’re as close as three seniors can be,” White told a reporter inside the courtroom Monday.
There was no dispute that Franklin wrote the documents, although there was debate over whether the 2014 will was properly signed – a smiley face appears to replace her first initial.
“Why would anyone sign a document if it was just a draft?” Charles L. McKelvie, Kecalf’s attorney, asked in court.
After Franklin died, her estate was valued at $18 million, according to Smith. In 2021, the estate reached an agreement with the Internal Revenue Service to pay approximately $8 million in federal income taxes; under that agreement, the estate said it would set aside 40 percent of revenue — including music royalties and licensing, as well as revenue from projects like “Respect,” the 2021 biopic starring Jennifer Hudson — to pay federal taxes owed by the estate, and estimated taxes owed by heirs.
The court accounting document this year lists $4.1 million in personal property and real estate, including several homes in Michigan; $42,000 in hides; $73,000 in jewelry; companies and accounts related to Franklin’s music; and just over $1 million in bank balances. The accounting did not attempt to estimate future earnings from her estate’s licensing rights.